The west coast of St. LuciaRoad shows in key markets and an island-based call center are two initiatives launched by the St. Lucia Tourist Board to reach out to travel agents.

"Agents are key in the decision-making process when it comes to driving business and bookings," said Louis Lewis, director of tourism.

"We want to keep them in the game and help them direct business to our destination," he said.

The tourist board recently completed a series of road shows, visiting Chicago and other Midwest cities as well as key cities in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas.

"Our objective was to attract 2,500 agents" through the shows, Lewis said. "We came pretty close."

He reported enthusiasm for and interest in the island-based call center, launched in April, which enables agents to call (800) ST-LUCIA between 8 a.m. and 11 p.m. weekdays and talk with a tourism specialist.

The center will move to a 24/7 operation later this fall.

The island specialists at the call center also initiate calls to U.S. agents to update them with hotel development, attraction openings and airlift expansion.

"Many of our agents are home-based agents, and we find that this is a good way to keep in touch and on top of mind," Lewis said.

The tourist board's website, at www.stlucianow.com, has a live chat feature, which enables interactive sessions between agents and tourism specialists.

"All these features help prime us for the winter season," Lewis said.

He described 2011 as a "challenging year, given the economic crisis that still resonates within the travel industry."

Coming off a record year in 2010, which saw more than 305,000 stayover arrivals representing an overall increase of 9.9% (the U.S. market accounted for 130,000 visitors), "the U.S. numbers will be down by 4% this year," according to Lewis.

One reason for the decline is that several properties were closed for renovations and upgrades, which reduced the available inventory.

Cruise traffic also has dropped this year, with figures down 10% through July over the same period last year.

Forecast for the upcoming winter season is "flat," although Lewis said that current flights were averaging load factors of 82% and higher, accounting for "a steady flow of arrivals."

Airlift this winter includes six JetBlue flights a week from New York Kennedy, up from five last winter; a daily American flight from Miami; and two American Eagle flights from San Juan into Vigie Airport in the northern part of St. Lucia.

There's talk that RedJet flights from Barbados to St. Lucia could launch this fall. "Any increase in intraregional lift is a big help," Lewis said.

Windjammer Landing guestroomFinancing appears to be in place to move ahead with the $140 million redevelopment and expansion project at Hewanorra Airport in the south.

Plans call for a new international arrivals and departures terminal, jet bridges and expanded aircraft parking aprons.

Groundbreaking was Nov. 1, and construction is expected to take 24 months.

To boost traffic, St. Lucia is eyeing new markets, specifically Brazil and Panama.

"Travelers there appear to be recession-resistant, and they travel a lot," Lewis said.

On the hotel front, the all-inclusive BodyHoliday resort reopened Oct. 3, following a $20 million renovation project that added a two-level infinity pool and a penthouse suite and expanded the Wellness Center to 30,000 square feet.

The Hotel Chocolat, which debuted in March, has opened its restaurant and reflecting pool, now has eight villas in operation and offers a tour of the surrounding Rabot Estate cocoa plantation.

Windjammer Landing completed its renovations, and Coconut Bay added new spa amenities to its lineup.

"We have three ziplines in operation now," Lewis said. "The newest to open is two miles from the drive-in volcano in Soufriere.

St. Lucia will host its first Health & Wellness Retreat from Nov. 17 to 20 in Soufriere. The retreat is structured around seminars and workshops led by experts in yoga, nutrition, feng shui and well-being therapies.

Tickets are priced at $1,000, and 11 participating properties offer packages geared to the retreat. Details are available at www.saintluciahealthandwellnessretreat.com.  

For Caribbean and Mexico news, follow Gay Nagle Myers on Twitter @gnmtravelweekly.

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